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How the Cranberry Became
Part of our Thanksgiving

 

We don't have photographs of the first Thanksgiving in 1621,

but we know that the Native Americans shared with the early settlers in this celebration.

In the Northeast of the United States Cranberries grew wild and the Native Americans used them not only eating but for dye for their clothing, rugs and blankets. So this is probably when it started.

 

Some Other Facts on Cranberries

1. Cranberries are one of only three fruits that are native to North America. It's a wild fruit that grows on long-running vines in sandy bogs and marshes, mostly in the Northeast, but also in the Pacific Northwest.

2. Native Americans were the first to enjoy cranberries. They mixed deer meat and mashed cranberries to make pemmicana—a survival food. They also believed in the medicinal value of cranberries—long before science discovered cranberry's health benefits.

3. Native Americans also used the rich red juice of the cranberry as a natural dye for rugs, blankets and clothing.

4. Cranberries were called “sassamanesh” by Eastern Indians. While the Cape Cod Pequots and the South Jersey Leni-Lenape tribes named them “ibimi,” or bitter berry. It was the early German and Dutch settlers who started calling it the “crane berry” because the flower looked a lot like the head and bill of a crane.

5. It wasn't until the 1800's that people began farming cranberries. At first growers would pick the cranberries by hand. Today most cranberries are harvested using a technique known as wet harvesting. That's when the bog is flooded with water and the cranberries float to the surface, where they are easily scooped up.

6. Sailors once used cranberries as a source of vitamin C to prevent scurvy. Besides Vitamin C, we now know that cranberries are also full of antioxidants that help cleanse and purify the body.

7. Some cranberry bogs are more than 100 years old and still produce today.

9. Americans consume some 400 million pounds of cranberries a year, 20 percent during Thanksgiving week.

9. American recipes containing cranberries date from the early 18th Century.

Thoughts on the History of Cranberries

by Gabriel Coelis

“ It has been an unchallengeable American doctrine that cranberry sauce, a pink goo with overtones of sugared tomatoes, is a delectable necessity of the Thanksgiving board and that turkey is inedible without it. ”

-Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke, a legendary British-American journalist, writer and broadcaster who just two years ago, to the great poverty of us all, passed away, graciously and unwittingly provided us with today's quote. Of course, his legacy is considerably greater than that of an obscure observation concerning cranberries, but for our purposes, which are as quintessentially plump and juicy as our subject of mention, this will have to suffice as this column's one and only homage to a great man.

Well, and if this is the first installment of Chez Ché , perhaps we can be forgiven.

Also, Alistair Cooke might have been kinder to the cranberry, one of just a scattered few of North America 's native fruits that are used in our traditional and cultural recipes, had he known that the fruit was immortal. Oh, the berries themselves are as vincible as you or I, as mercurial and fleeting as any other life this planet has begotten – in evidence I present craisins , a snack and handy salad garnish more withered and pruned than any of our centenarians. But the vines themselves, if left to their own devices and allowed to flourish undamaged, can survive indefinitely without even a hint of reducing their yield. There are vines in Massachusetts , in fact, that have survived a century and a half and show no sign of slowing. Eat your heart out, Energizer Rabbit.

 

 

Cranberries get their name from settlers at least, if not more, German than the perpetrator of kitchenproject.com, Chef Stephen. The settlers thought the blooming flowers on the vines resembled the head and beak of a crane. Hence, craneberry . A dash of this, a pinch of that, just a hint of Anglicization and presto! Its name exists as it does today.

Today there are just short of a thousand cranberry farmers in America , most of them concentrated in just a few regions in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, although America also gets some of their cranberries from relatively new vines in Canada and Chile .

Cranberries burst with a sweetness tempered only by an astringent flavor that clings to the belly of the fruit's effect on the palate. Cranberries are like the ex-wives of the fruit world. It's love at first sight, and then wham ! They hit you with an almost violent, face-contorting blast of bitterness that changes the way you ever thought about it.

The cranberry is fruit with a dark side, fruit with skeletons in its closet, a conflicted, complex and mysterious food. Cranberries aren't plain and one-dimensional. I'm not knocking the red delicious apple, nor even insinuating anything by mentioning it by name – but cranberries aren't in the same ballpark – cranberries are a completely different sport. Where apples play little-league soccer at the rec center down the street, cranberries are backyard wrestlers.

Their versatility is legendary, but because of their traditional uses, they are often forgotten for eleven months out of the year. Yet there are literally thousands of recipes that can coax infinite varieties of flavors from cranberries. They can be used in anything from desserts to sauces to marinades to salad toppings or even an inviting garnish.

Cranberries in America predate our very own presence here. And now I suppose I've misspoken – cranberries predate the pilgrims, and I as a Westerner, for my myopia, now owe any Native Americans reading this henceforth delicately penned missive an abject apology. But before the first light-skinned bipedal creature ever stepped off a Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria , Mayflower, U.S.S. Kittyhawk or whatever onto the shores of this great continent, Native Americans were utilizing the delicious fruit in myriad ways.

Most prominent of their recipes, from a historical standpoint, was pemmican , a sort of amalgam of crushed, dried cranberry paste with venison that did not spoil easily and was thus notable enough to the newcomer Westerners enough to record for posterity. But it didn't stop there, though many recipes and other utilizations of the cranberry are lost even to descendants of the original tribes that welcomed the first pilgrims.

The story goes, as we have all heard, that cranberries were served at the first Thanksgiving dinner, and that is why it has been established as an American tradition that they be served at the modern celebration of the holiday. There is no historical evidence of this; it is simply a long-standing belief and has been part of Thanksgiving for so long that few now question it.

Perhaps one day people will come to believe that the first Thanksgiving was spent watching violent spectacles involving a leather ellipse, or that there was an uncle of one of the Native Americans present that got drunk and started arguments with any and all in his casualty radius about the liberal/conservative bias in the media and how it's destroying the country . As it stands, we'll take cranberries, with or without a prop for its veracity, as cranberries are preferable to an unenlightened few over the former and preferable to most over the latter.

So never mind Alistair Cooke. Rather, mind Alistair Cooke, just not on the subject of cranberries. Cranberries, in whole berry or jellied form, dried or fresh, on a salad, in juice with or without the flavors of a milder fruit cousin (with or without vodka) aren't just for Thanksgiving. I haven't even hinted at the proanthocyanidins in cranberries that aid the body's antibacterial immunities, or the prevalent antioxidants and nutrients that have beneficial dental, cardiovascular and anti-aging properties. Cranberries help fight cancer, among a host of other health problems. And they're delicious and infinitely applicable, making them an instant add to any grocery list.

This Thanksgiving, when you have to buy cranberries or face an armed revolt from the family, consider your options when utilizing the perennially copious leftovers you will undoubtedly have. Experiment, incorporate, try something new or spruce up a favorite dish. It beats the stuffing out of just another turkey and cranberry sandwich, and you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

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Last updated November 26, 2008